First discovered in 2011, scientists, including some from the National Geographic Society, are just beginning to uncover graves and a huge burial city near Nata, Panama, about three hours west of Panama City. The mosquito infected area sits in a triangle bordered by the Pacific Ocean and two rivers. On many busy days, archaeologists from institutions around the world are at work excavating on-site. On other days, such as the day I visited, the archaeologists are busy in a Panama City lab analyzing massive amounts of excavated material.
Having visited the Panama Canal every year since 2008, I am continuously impressed by how the massive outdoor operation is run. When the Canal was given to Panama to operate at the end of 1999, the conventional wisdom was that it would be run into the ground by banana republic operators after efficient US management since it opened in 1914. In truth, the ACP, as the Canal is known in by its Spanish-language acronym, may be one of the best run international enterprises, surpassing US management.
There are canal locks in many places in the world. Many of these locations are in the US. So why do people flock to Panama to see its canal? A 2015 visit to the impressive Iron Gates locks on the Danube River helped me focus on why the Panama Canal is so much more impressive.
100-pound bags of sugar as high as a pyramid
It’s raining sugar in this place.
So much so that we have to wear breathing masks. That isn’t all. Every visitor also must to wear long pants, closed shoes, a hard hat, eye goggles and earplugs.
The earplugs made it especially difficult to hear the tour guide without straining. But the alternative would be a loss of hearing due to the very high decibel levels.
We’re in one of Panama’s sugar factories. I visited Panama during the three-month period when the sugar cane is in season. The factory has to make enough money to make a profit during just three months a year.
I made a connection with the general manager of the factory while at a Rotary Club meeting. I explained that I love factory tours, and he offered to show me the place. I’m sure he’d let others visit, but there are few people around the area who even realize it’s there, even though it employs 3,000 people during the three-month season (600 off-season). The factory is not advertised in any tourist brochures. You have to know the right people. If any reader wants to go, let me know.
As you get close to the factory, you experience the sugar rain. It’s the particulate in air discharged by the bellowing smoke stack that towers over the area. It’s not actually sugar. It’s the remnants of the sugar cane after the processing is over.
Turns out making sugar is a lot more complicated than I had ever imagined.
It all starts with harvesting sugar cane.
At the end of the line, a truck load of sugar heads to the Canal
In Panama the sugar factory owns a lot of land and harvests its own cane. But individual entrepreneurial farmers also stream in during season selling the cane they have harvested. It’s sold by weight. There are two methods of harvesting, by machete or by machine. You can easily see the difference. The machine cane looks like a pile of twigs. Hand-harvested cane looks like oversized cut grass, which, by the way, is exactly what cane is — a form of very large grass. Both methods produce the same sugar quality after processing.
Sleepy Santiago in the center of Panama isn’t as sleepy as it once was.
Off the beaten trail, it has benefitted from Panama’s extraordinary economic growth, more than 7 percent annually, far in excess of the U.S. Since my last visit about one year ago, there are two new malls lining the Pan American Highway and several more under construction. High-end stores from Panama City and the U.S. occupy these new retail spaces, cutting into downtown shopping.
With its new prosperity, people are willing to pay a little more for a newer, upscale, sophisticated product. The old megastores downtown have far fewer clients. More people have cars and are able and willing to drive to shop. Sound a bit familiar? The Walmart syndrome has hit Panama.
In a remote corner of the world, far from a major city, lies what is certainly the busiest intersection on the map.
The Pan American Highway runs from Alaska down to the tip of South America. The highway is broken only by a few hundred kilometers in the Darien Jungle of Panama. This is intentional. Panama does not want to facilitate drug trafficking from Columbia on its southeastern border. The Darien is one of the most inhospitable places anywhere. Without strong survival skills, crossing through it is certain death. A highway would civilize it. The interrupted highway picks up again in Columbia, which has made major strides in shutting down the narcotraffickers.
The new and the old
To my mind Panama is really two countries wrapped up in one, and that’s one of the things that make it a great vacation destination.
The first country is what I call “Panama #1.” Panama #1 is the first-world-ish country roughly surrounding the Panama Canal. It consists of Panama City and the Free Trade Zone. The second country — what I call “Panama #2” — is the rest of Panama. This part of Panama is largely rural and undeveloped. To me, this is the most exciting part of Panama, but accessibility is a problem. So most people stick with the thrills of Panama #1 and miss out on Panama #2.